After strict instructions, Trump jury begins deliberations

After more than five weeks, countless hours of testimony and a mountain of documents, a New York judge instructed a jury to make a historic decision: whether Donald Trump is guilty or not guilty of a crime.

On Wednesday, a day after both sides made their final pitches to jurors, Justice Juan Merchan delivered over an hour of deliberation instructions, going over each of the charges and detailing the elements of the alleged crime.

He explained to the 12-person jury the bar that prosecutors have to meet to convict the former president: guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“It is not sufficient to prove that the defendant is probably guilty,” Justice Merchan told the court. “In a criminal case, the proof of guilt must be stronger than that.”

The former president has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records in relation to a hush-money payment made to adult-film star Stormy Daniels, who claimed she had sex with Mr Trump. He denies the encounter.

During the morning court session, Justice Merchan delivered a variety of guidelines, advising jurors not to base their decisions on biases or the criminal convictions of other witnesses in the case.

Justice Juan Merchan instructs the jury as former U.S. President Donald Trump looks on in a courtroom sketch
Justice Juan Merchan instructs the jury on Wednesday before deliberations as former US President Donald Trump looks on in a courtroom sketch [Reuters]

Most crucially, he spelled out in detail prosecutors’ complicated felony case against Mr Trump. They claim he falsified a reimbursement to his fixer for the hush-money payment with the intent to conceal other crimes: violations of state and federal election laws and tax laws.

He told the jury that prosecutors do not need to prove these secondary crimes, nor do jurors need to be in agreement on which specific one Mr Trump committed. They must reach a unanimous verdict on each of the 34 counts, however.

From the start, the defence has denied any wrongdoing and sought to cast doubt on testimony from the prosecution's key witness - Mr Trump’s former fixer and convicted felon Michael Cohen - in an attempt to disprove the larger case.

By Wednesday afternoon, jurors left the Manhattan courthouse without a verdict. They did return to the courtroom in the afternoon, however, seeking specific testimony to help in their deliberations.

When they come back on Thursday morning, they will sift through the requested testimony and once again weigh whether Mr Trump will become the first former president to be convicted of a felony.

Here is what jurors could decide:

1) Trump is found guilty

All 12 members of the jury must agree Mr Trump is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt for prosecutors to secure a conviction.

This is the worst-case scenario for Mr Trump, who would become the first major party candidate running for US president as a felon.

He would almost certainly appeal this verdict. His lawyers already have argued for a mistrial on multiple occasions, each time unsuccessfully.

If found guilty, he faces a maximum sentence of four years behind bars per count, or a smaller punishment of probation and a fine. Most experts say the 77-year-old is unlikely to face any time in prison.

"It is a non-violent offence. It's the lowest of the [felony] offences," said former Brooklyn prosecutor Julie Rendelman. "With no record, his age, you name it, it would be highly unlikely."

If Mr Trump was sentenced to time in prison, it would pose a logistical challenge for court officers and Secret Service staff who would be required to protect him in prison.

2) Trump is acquitted

If all12 members of the jury find prosecutors have not proven Mr Trump's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, he would be acquitted of the felony charges, which would be a major blow to the Manhattan District Attorney's Office that brought the case.

It also would be a huge victory for the former president as he bids to return to the White House. While it is still legal for a convicted felon to run for US president, a guilty verdict could hurt his chances with voters.

An acquittal would mean that the prosecution, despite weeks of testimony and hours of questioning high-profile witnesses, including Ms Daniels, Cohen and a former senior Trump aide, failed to convince the Manhattan jury.

Mr Trump has complained daily in the courthouse about the trial, claiming that Judge Merchan and the case against him are unfair, and that he has committed no crime.

He faces three other criminal cases, including over election interference and the 6 January Capitol riot that followed his 2020 election loss, but this case was widely thought to be the only one likely to go to trial before Americans go to the polls on 5 November.

3) It's a hung jury

It only takes one of the 12 jurors to unravel the prosecutors' case.

If the jurors cannot all agree unanimously on a verdict - guilty or not guilty - this will result in a hung jury.

If they report to the judge that they cannot reach a decision, Justice Merchan may instruct them once or twice more to try again to reach a verdict.

But if they still cannot, he would declare a mistrial. Prosecutors would then have to decide on the spot whether they want to retry the case.

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[BBC]

BBC News reporters are in the Manhattan courtroom covering the historic first criminal trial of a former US president. You'll find their updates and analysis on the BBC news website and app, and across TV, radio and podcasts.